The start of the lesson hooked pupils into the learning beautifully and Tom, the beginning teacher, valiantly moves the class onto the first independent task. Within minutes the lesson, which promised so much, has been overtaken by a ripple of off task behaviour. By 5 minutes in only the 3 most compliant pupils have achieved anything even vaguely resembling a response to part 1 of this quick activity. Tom braces himself for the inevitable conversation with his mentor. Why does this keep happening?
Tom is not alone. Alongside questioning, which I expored in my last post here, another common target at this point in the ITT (Initial Teacher Training) year is the management of transition points within lessons. Observers may comment explicitly on the challenge of moving a class from one phase of a lesson to the next, frequently however this phenomenon is identified more obliquely in terms of ‘needing to address pace.’ Whilst the ‘pace’ of a lesson refers to a range of factors, including the amount of time given to tasks or spent on direct instruction, this type of target often also links to the loss of momentum during critical transition moments caused by logistics, clarity of instruction and clarity of purpose, and the knock-on effect this has on behaviour and learning.
The logistics of transition
Logistical disruption has an immediate impact upon focus and preparedness to learn. As worksheets are handed out, glue passed round to stick sheets into books or groups formed, proceedings can easily be derailed as both the teacher and pupils become distracted by the mechanics of the lesson rather than the learning. Mitigate these problems by:
Preparing in advance
- Being organised so equipment and resources are easily located and can be distributed with minimal fuss, for example having 8 resource pots, one for each desk group, rather than 30 individual glue sticks.
- Considering resourcing carefully – could the resource be displayed on the board rather than provided to pupils individually? Could all the lesson tasks be combined into one continuous resource? Could the resource be pre-cut to size? Could the outcome of a cut and stick task be achieved using a colour coded key?
- Thinking about how the beginning of lessons might be organised to prepare for the rest of the learning time. Could the first pupils to arrive be tasked with handing out books or resources so you can concentrate on getting the rest of the class ready to learn?
- Establishing routines for paired or group work to help pupil expectations for this type of work and enable a more efficient transition to the next phase.
- Considering the role of quieter moments during the lessons for establishing a good transition/ preparing for the next. Pausing and surveying the room for a few golden minutes before leaping into support individuals, can allow you to spot the slow starters and establish if instructions need to be clarified for all. Similarly, using a moment where pupils are working independently/ watching a video clip, to hand out the resources for the next phase will enable a smoother transition.
Lack of clarity in transition
Transition problems can also arise when pupils are unclear about how they make the move from one task to the next. This is most often the consequence of opaque instructions, delivered in a manner which assumes the pupils can work it out for themselves. When observing a class, you can usually tell if this has worked as the group move as one to complete the activity e.g., bowing their heads and picking up their pen to begin. Similarly, you know it has gone wrong when the teacher instantly needs to intervene, reexplaining the task to multiple smaller groups of pupils. Improve clarity with:
Clear instruction giving:
- Insisting all pupils are attentive whilst you are giving instructions will ensure a more efficient learning environment for everyone overall.
- Providing instructions in a written, as well as oral, form helps all pupils. Breaking instructions into steps is also beneficial, especially so for pupils who struggle to process.
- Asking pupils to explain back to you what they need to do helps to clarify instructions more effectively than vaguely asking ‘does anyone has any questions?’
- Showing pupils how to approach an activity with an example completed together can be helpful for bringing clarity to instructions and for establishing expectations for the presentation of work.
- Narrating the approach being taken to complete a task or asking metacognitive questions of a class as you complete an example together can also reveal the thought processes pupils may need to draw on to be able to reach the outcome.
Loss of purpose and direction within the lesson
Sometimes the organisation of a lesson is slick and the instruction giving crystal clear, and yet the transitions are still problematic. In these lessons apathy reigns and pupils see transitions as an opportunity to seek distraction because they simply do not understand the purpose of the activities they are completing. Helping pupils understand the ‘why’ of a lesson can be improved by:
- Ensuring lessons are planned with a clear sense of purpose which is evident to the pupils throughout, for example, in history we frame our lessons around enquiry questions which provide intrigue, are clearly connected to the historical process, and have a tangible outcome (Riley, 2000).
- Avoiding ‘time filler’ tasks (often typified by being low in challenge and only loosely related to the lesson purposes) to ensure that all activities are purposeful and sequenced to move pupils closer towards the lesson outcome.
- Identifying what needs to be known and understood by the end of each phase of the lesson, and how you will establish that it has, to support decisions about when to move on to the next task – thus supporting more succinct explanation giving or questioning.
Tom needs to manage the transitions in his lessons, not leave them to chance. He should be confident that if he does, anticipating these transition challenges, preparing for them in advance, and mitigating their impact within a lesson, is something which will get easier with experience.
Riley, M. (2000) Into the Key Stage 3 history garden: choosing and planting your enquiry questions, Teaching History, 99